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April 25, 2019

Hallie EakinThe Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems focuses on innovative ideas and solutions to the many challenges of current food systems. In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation and what makes a good meal. See the rest of the series on our Food Systems Profiles page.

Read on for an interview with Hallie Eakin, professor in the School of Sustainability.

Question: How did you get interested in food systems issues?

Answer: I have always been interested in how small-holders and rural households cope with different types of stress, and that is what brought me into food systems. In undergrad, I did research in Zimbabwe looking at the impacts of structural adjustment and climate change on food security and farmer livelihoods.

From there, I joined the World Bank to look at how using climate models to predict when drought might affect places like Zimbabwe, Malawi, and South Africa to prepare better for such extreme events. That work was very inspiring, but made me think that forecasts might not be equally available for all types of farmers, and that bigger farmers would benefit most from this kind of technology.

I went back to grad school and did more work in Central Mexico to look at how farmers manage risk and climate change, and how they adapt to risk. When I was asked to teach food systems here at ASU, it expanded my perspective beyond agriculture to everything from production and consumption, to distribution, food waste, and the multiple sustainable issues that arise and types of interventions that can be mobilized to address these concerns.

Q: Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation.

A: I’m interested in the systems perspective on where food systems are going in the 21st century. My work is focused on the fact that food insecure and rural households are both affected by and participate in some of the more significant drivers of global environmental change. This has led me to the idea of “telecoupling” -- the phenomena that activity in one geographic place can have unexpected impacts in very distant locations.

Think about a single commodity chain and all the corners of the world that are involved in the production, distribution and consumption of that commodity, whether that’s cotton, palm oil or coffee. There are not only the direct impacts of that supply chain in terms of land and labor, but there are also spillover effects, things happening in adjacent areas. I’m interested in how these systems are connected, who’s affected by these connectivities, and how should these complex systems be governed.

A concrete example is to look at the maize sector in Mexico. The consumption and production of tortillas, which are the basis for food security in rural Mexico, was affected by the increasing diversion of corn toward biofuels in the United States. That policy diverted maize exports away from Mexico, which, in combination with a variety of other global events happening at the same time, increased the price and led to a lot of disturbances in the form of protests and social unrest.

When policies in the United States have unexpected consequences in rural Mexico, who should have a say in how such policies should change? Is there more of a need for better coordinated global governance when these spillover effects have such large social and environmental impacts? At some point the food system isn’t just a commodity chain, it’s about biodiversity, it’s about human rights, it’s about cultural meaning, it’s also about how people make a living, it’s about all these things.

Q: What’s an innovation in the food systems world that you’re excited about?

A: Recently I was reading an article about how restaurateurs and chefs in Puerto Rico are becoming activists and they’re working with farmers and food providers to restore local food. It’s exciting to see chefs, who perhaps have traditionally been focused on feeding a particular and elite audience, become interested in the preservation and origins of food, and play a role in raising awareness about food system sustainability for a wider audience and to enhance processes of social change.

There are great chefs here in the Phoenix Valley, for example Blue Watermelon Group, who are working in the schools. They are not only teaching kids about gardening, but also about taste, and how great it is to put ingredients together, and the values of food.

These programs are slow and small but we’re seeing them all over the place, whether it’s helping in the recovery after disasters, or using high-end restaurants to subsidize free meals, or making good, healthy meals for homeless populations. It’s important work. It’s about making the community connections, and it’s also about recognizing and putting forward a different set of values about food.

What’s your favorite food?

A: My favorite food is the grapefruit from the tree in my yard. It’s fresh, and there’s something about walking outside and picking straight from the tree. The tart, fresh juice is just marvelous. I feel so lucky to be in a place where a grapefruit tree can grow.